Golden apple (Spondius cytherea)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

By Richard J. Campbell

As Published at the Miami Herald


We all are in search for plants that enrich our lives, but require a minimum of time investment on our part. The mombins, as a group fit perfectly into this mold, providing aesthetics for our home garden, fruit for our enjoyment and more time for our families. They are in the mango family and come from Central America and Southeast Asia to provide us with nearly carefree plants for our home gardens. While there are many to choose from, we will highlight two species perfect for South Florida.


 The purple mombin (Spondias purpurea) is known by many names throughout its native range in Central America, including Mexican plum, jocote, jobo and hog plum. The latter name should not be taken as derogatory; it denotes the extreme usefulness of this fruit, serving not only as food for the people, but also for domestic livestock. Throughout <st1:place w:st="on">Central America the purple mombin is essential for subsistence farmers, providing a food source with little investment of time and money.


The tree remains small in most conditions and is among the easiest of plants to propagate. So easy that it has been used as a living fence in many of the locations where it is found. When the tree loses its leaves in the dry season it can be started simply by planting one of the leafless branches. Few plants offer such ease of propagation.


The purple mombin is a monsoon and drought adapted tree. During the rainy season it will have a lush, green canopy and will grow at an impressive rate, and during the dry season it will lose its leaves completely. In areas with severe, long dry seasons the purple mombin will remain leafless for several months. The tree will produce a multitude of small red flowers along the length of the bare branches that will set fruit with no worries of pollination. There are red-, yellow- and green-skinned selections that ripen at the end of the dry season, arriving to the size of a ping pong ball or even bigger in some selections. Unfortunately their stone is also large.


The flesh is eaten skin and all and the flavor is sweet and tart, with a slight hint of mango. The fruit are almost always eaten fresh, but can be made into preserves or even used as dried fruit. A good selection will be extremely productive if the tree is allowed to dry out properly during the dry season and given an ample dose of sunshine. The form of the tree, low and spreading when grown in the open, is pleasing to the eye and a joy for children to frolic among its branches. Fertilization, pest and disease control will not be necessary and irrigation is highly discouraged within the South Florida landscape.


The second mombin, which comes from Southeast Asia, is called the golden apple and warrants inclusion in the home garden for many of the same reasons. There are several types, but the most useful may be the dwarf golden apple, which appeared in the Americas in the last 20 years. The dwarf golden apple can be kept no taller than 8 ft in the home landscape. One will rarely find a tree that is easier to care for, and the tree will flower and fruit within the first year of planting – guaranteed. In the landscape it is a handsome small tree that will not overwhelm the home gardener.


The dwarf golden apple has one distinct drawback. It is so productive that it should have its fruit thinned in order to achieve a larger fruit size. The blooms occur at the ends of the short branches and will set as many as 20 to 30 fruit on each cluster. However, with your fingers or hand shears all of the fruit except 1 or 2 should be removed. Fret not, for the dwarf golden apple will keep producing blooms from its many branches. The challenge will be to keep up with the fruit thinning, but it will be worth it.  


When thinned the fruit will be the size and shape of a jumbo egg. The fruit will be yellow in color and will have a sweet and tart flavor with even more of a mango flavor. The fruit are usually eaten out of hand, but there are many ways of preserving the fruit into pickles and chutneys. Just like the purple mombin the dwarf golden apple will lose its leaves during the driest of seasons, although it will not stay bare for nearly as long. The tree is almost ever-bearing, so when it does lose its leaves it will often still have fruit at the ends of its branches. It is best to harvest these fruit and do a little clean-up pruning on your golden apple at this time.


The golden apple, unlike the purple mombin, is best grown from seed. It will produce an identical plant to the mother tree. The new plant will begin to flower and fruit within one year of planting and thinning of the fruit on a young tree is important for proper fruit size and overall tree health. The dwarf golden apple will benefit more from light fertilization with a fruit tree fertilizer and will require no irrigation or pest control sprays.


The mombins are not common in the landscapes of South Florida, but when you encounter a community with many residents of Central American heritage, the mombins will definitely show themselves. Plants can be purchased from specialty fruit tree nurseries, but remember that if you wait until the dry season and ask for a branch of a good selection from a neighbor or friend, you too can be in production within a year or two. For the dwarf golden apple a seed will do quite nicely.


The mombins are the model of efficiency for the modern homeowner. There will be a maximum amount of time to enjoy the fruit of one’s labors and a minimum of work in managing the tree. It may take a little more time to find a good selection, but the reward is indeed substantial. Find one, plant it and enjoy!

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